Friday, April 29, 2016

State Flags, Part 2

Part 2: State Flags that Mostly Rule

Continuing a survey of the flags of the 50 U.S. states, with comments on why I think some of them rule and others suck - and perhaps a few suggestions how to reduce the vacuum pressure of the latter - I now present a few state flags that come close to greatness.

I don't have to tell you what state has this flag. It's pretty neat. It has a white lozenge (diamond shape) on a red field, with 25 white stars spaced along the blue border around the lozenge, and four larger blue stars inside it, divided by the one bit that I think takes away from it: the name ARKANSAS, in blue block letters. There are several explanations of what all this means. The 25 white stars are apparently a reminder that Arkansas was the 25th state admitted to the union. In the original design, without the unfortunate ARKANSAS, had three blue stars in a row across the center of the white lozenge. When the state officially adopted the design, it signed its name and put one star above the name and two below. The original three stars represented either that Arkansas was the third state created from the Louisiana Purchase (after Louisiana and Missouri), or three countries it had belonged to (Spain, France, and the U.S.), or the year three (1803) when the Louisiana Purchase became part of the U.S. In 1923, the state legislature added a fourth star representing the Confederate States of America, at first arranging the stars in a square with the state's name through the center; later they changed it again to allow a grouping of three stars to suggest those Louisiana Purchase-related meanings. Confusingly, there has also been some talk of a star somewhere on this flag representing Michigan, the "sister state" of Arkansas that was added to the union around the same time; but where that star might be, I can't tell. With the same shades of red and blue used in Old Glory, the Arkansas flag must (by law) be made in the U.S. and may be pledged with the words, "I salute the Arkansas Flag with its diamond and stars. We pledge our loyalty to thee." Frankly, I would take the word ARKANSAS across the center of the flag; but all this confusion about the meaning of the stars is really what knocks it out of Totally Rules contention.

I have lived in Arizona, and I love Arizona, and I think its flag is almost great. But it is not quite great, in my opinion, because the copper color of the star makes it hard to see against the 13 radiating bars of red and yellow filling the top half of the flag. The copper star represents the state's copper industry, but for my money it would look better in white. Anyhow, the red and yellow rays represent the colors of the Spanish empire (to which the area previously belonged), the 13 original U.S. states, and those glorious desert sunsets. The blue field of the bottom half represents the majestic Colorado River, though it's really more of a muddy trickle by the time it reaches my sometime hometown of Yuma. Screw the copper industry! Make that star white and we'll have something to talk about.

This is also a very likeable flag, with pretty bold imagery - a white field with one Old Glory red star in the upper hoist corner (a.k.a. canton), a large brown grizzly bear walking on a patch of Irish green grass in the center, and a thick red stripe across the bottom. The bear's body is shaded in two colors, seal (a dark brown also used to highlight the grass plot) and maple-sugar brown; it also has a red tongue, white eyes and fangs, and white claws on three of its feet. Again, though it is a reasonably simple picture that many California schoolchildren can probably draw with crayons, I think it could do without the unnecessary block-letters (also in seal) spelling "California Republic." There have been several versions of this flag through the state's history, including one that was simply a big red star in the center of a white field; on another, the field was split into two horizontal bars, the upper white, the lower red, with the bear rampant facing the red star in the canton. The size, position, and detail of bear, red stripe, and lettering have moved around a few times. So changing the flag would not be unprecedented. If I were to change it again, it would only be to remove the text. But as it is, it's already a nearly great flag.

The flag of Colorado would totally rule, if it didn't somehow remind me of the logo of a baseball team. It is a pretty straightforward design, though. The big, red, slightly off-center C stands for, duh, Colorado, and the red earth that gave the state its name. It clutches a golden disk, representing the sun, on top of fat blue and white strips suggesting the sky and the mountain snows of the Mile-High State. This version of the flag, adopted in 1964, is a slight improvement over the 1911 version in which the C and the sun-disk where much smaller, fitting inside the white stripe. It's a very recognizable and distinctive flag, its easy-to-see details making it suitable to include on state highway signs.

It isn't, strictly speaking, one of the 50 states, but the District of Columbia has this flag. Its three red stars above two red stripes across a white field are based on George Washington's coat of arms. It has unusually wide, 1:2 proportions.

Hawaii's flag is the only U.S. state flag to retain in its canton the U.K.'s Union Jack. Chalk it up to tradition; a version of this flag flew over Hawaii when it was still a British dependency. Now it also has eight horizontal stripes in alternating white, red, and blue; these represent the state's eight main islands. July 31 is Hawaiian flag day in the 50th state.

Here is another flag of a state I have lived in, and I think it's quite grand - except for the word INDIANA, which I could do with out. I mean, it's not even very easy to see without eye-strain. The torch and the rays emanating from it represent wisdom and liberty. The outer ring of 13 stars suggests the 13 original states of the union, with an inner arc of five stars below and one larger star directly above the torch, representing Indiana, the 19th state.

The North Carolina flag also has some hard-to-read text on it, but I forgive it because, when you step back, it is still very distinctive and straightforward. The text on the two gilt scrolls comprises the dates of the Mecklenburg Declaration (May 20th, 1775) and the Halifax Resolves (April 12th, 1776), two acts of colonial North Carolina's that helped pave the way for the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The gilt letters "N" and "C" need no explanation. That just leaves one white star in the center of a blue vertical band (union) and broad horizontal bands of white and red. The pledge to this state's flag reads: "I salute the flag of North Carolina and pledge to the Old North State love, loyalty, and faith."

Here is the flag of my native state, signed with its own name. On the gold scroll above its name, Nevada styles itself BATTLE BORN, because it became a state during the Civil War. The silver star represents, I believe, the silver deposits that, along with gold, brought the state its first prosperity. Those garland-like things are sprigs of sagebrush, the state flower. Nevada's flag went through several designs, including one that actually had alternating rows of gold and silver stars and the words GOLD and SILVER, in case anyone might miss the visual cue to the state's mineral resources. Another weird version had the letters of the word NEVADA clustered around the star, like symbols on a compass. The current design is a definite improvement. But the eye-strain factor is still there. I don't know why it can't just be a silver star, framed by sprigs of sagebrush with that gold BATTLE BORN device above it, blown up in the center of the blue field, no NEVADA necessary.

Guess which state has this flag. I think it would be perfect - superlative, even - without the absurdly unnecessary word OKLAHOMA. No one who knows anything about state flags would ever mistake it for any other state's flag. There actually was a version of this design without the OKLAHOMA; it was the state's official flag 1925-41. Why they felt it necessary to change it, I'll never know. The emblem is a buffalo-skin shield crossed by a peace-pipe and an olive branch (also a symbol of peace), representing both the Native Americans and white settlers. There are also six brown crosses on the shield and seven eagle feathers dangling from it, and every detail right down to the field's precise shade of blue has some symbolic or historic significance for the tribes that populated the territory before it became a state. While I would like to see it go back to a version without the word OKLAHOMA stamped across it, at least this is better than the state's original flag, featuring a big, blue-edged, white star with a blue number 46 on it, all over a red field. That method of symbolizing the 46th state rather sent the message, "We're too busy to care about this." The state flag salute says, "I salute the Flag of the State of Oklahoma: Its symbols of peace unite all people."

The gold ring around the portrait of George Washington bears the inscription, "The Seal of the State of Washington, 1889" - Every letter of which is completely unnecessary. It would really make the point just as well, if not better, with a picture of George W. twice as large, surrounded by a gold ring half as thick, and with no black trim inside or out. But it's really not bad as it is.

The Wyoming flag would be absolutely spectacular without that "Great Seal of the State of Wyoming" superimposed on the silhouette of a bison. But it's already contingently spectacular, so that's something. There is a nice, detailed explanation of the significance of the colors of this flag, but what interests me is the fact that the bison changed directions sometime after the design was officially adopted. It was meant to face the fly, signifying its freedom to roam; but some Daughters of the American Revolution maven suggested it would make more sense for the image, like the live animal, to face upwind; i.e. toward the hoist. The change was never legislated, but after the first batch of flags produced in 1917, all subsequent Wyoming flag bisons have looked toward the flagpole.

You know what this means... In Part 3 we will discuss state flags that Pretty Much Suck.

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